Word-Haters Gonna Hate

A lengthy piece at Slate today by Matthew J.X. Malady delves into the question of why we humans insist on taking such pleasure in hating words so vociferously. But maybe we just hate words because it's fun.

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A lengthy piece at Slate today by Matthew J.X. Malady delves into the question of why we humans insist on taking such pleasure in hating words so vociferously. (If you don't believe that people love to hate certain words, delve into our comprehensive dictionary of disliked 2012 words, just one handy refresher on the subject of "word aversion.") It is a certain truth that words are one of those things we all have opinions on, given that we all use them. And we each consider ourselves experts on the subject, whether we truly are or not. But of course we're all experts! Who may better say what we like and don't like, after all, than our own selves? The answer is no one.

And so, as Malady writes, word aversion is a real thing, identified by the real experts, the linguists, themselves: "In a recent post on Language Log, University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman defined the concept as 'a feeling of intense, irrational distaste for the sound or sight of a particular word or phrase, not because its use is regarded as etymologically or logically or grammatically wrong, nor because it’s felt to be over-used or redundant or trendy or non-standard, but simply because the word itself somehow feels unpleasant or even disgusting.'"

In a piece full of hated words—moist, it's always moist, isn't it? It's also squab, cornucopia, panties, navel, brainchild, crud, slacks, crevice, and fudge—Malady digs deeper, providing us with an array of reasons certain words might bother us. For instance,

  • They make us feel disgusted for whatever reason.
  • They evoke yucky images.
  • They sound gross.  
  • They are gross (in meaning, or maybe in mouthfeel). 
  • We can't help it; it's a visceral response. 
  • It's evolutionary, to protect us from something bad (as with our distaste for the word rat).
  • And, perhaps most insidiously: The media makes us feel that way! With one hater comes others, especially when the word-hate becomes popularized. “There could very well be a viral aspect to this, where either through the media or just through real-world personal connections, the reaction to some particular word—for example, moist—spreads,” says Liberman. 

There is an interesting caveat, though. Most media types—the types paid to use words—don't hate words, reveals Malady, at least not in a debilitating sort of way. He quotes linguistics professor Jason Riggle, who says, "Linguists and writers and people who think about language all the time might be another population that has a more deeply ingrained notion of the arbitrariness of the meaning-word connection, which would maybe be some sort of inoculation against this." In layman's terms, if members of the media have to keep writing the word moist, they're going to be O.K. with moist. They also may simply be less likely to confess their word-hate, because it's better for them to remain objective. As for the word inoculation, this writer is not immune.

Malady ultimately admits that there's just too much we don't know about why we hate words (crud!). As a subject, word aversion hasn't been studied fully in academia. There are deep mysteries still left to unearth. We all may feel differently about different words, depending on our own life situations.

Still, on the subject of why, I'd venture to guess that we hate words because it's fun. It's like riding a scary ride at a theme park, or watching a horror movie with your hands in front of your eyes. It's putting your stamp on the language of the day—I hate the word panties! I hate slacks! The word ogress makes me feel ill! Why is pulchritudinous so disgusting-sounding? Nothing's going to go terribly awry if you run into a word you hate, and as a form of entertainment, it's cheap and satisfying to react to these words, which can be found everywhere. Mealworms. Poop. Squish. Gangrene. Barf. Jeez (according to one person at The Atlantic Wire, because it "looks gross"). Pus, which is indeed gross... and on and on.

In a world that can be numbing, or terrifying, words we dislike make us feel things, sending that rare shiver down our backs, that intense repulsion, that combined joy and distaste that isn't really dangerous in any serious way at all. We can talk about these words, and nothing will be lost and nothing will be gained, and it's all rather enjoyable. It may simply be that we hate words because we like hating words, because it feels so good. As they say, moist-haters gonna hate moist. Keep calm and carrion.

Image via Shutterstock by Andrea Crisante.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.